Who should have final say on public art displays?

As N. Adams mayor seeks control, arts commission chair resigns

JULIA DIXON, the chair of the Public Arts Commission in North Adams, resigned this week after the City Council once again failed to come to any agreement on whether the mayor or the commission should have the final sign off on public art displays.

“Decisions about public art need to be made by those who understand it, want it, make it, and see it,” Dixon wrote in a resignation letter she submitted by email while the council was still meeting. “If you vote on this language, and continue to fail to contextualize this, you will render this commission and the work it should be doing ineffective. If you still don’t understand why this is, you don’t understand public art and you certainly have no business regulating it.”

According to coverage by the Berkshire Eagle, the arts commission was created in 2015. At the time, public art displays were approved by a handshake between then-mayor Richard Alcombright and the artist. Alcombright wanted to create a more formal process that involved the community, which led to the creation of a seven-member Public Arts Commission with the authority to negotiate and sign contracts with artists.

In August, the current mayor of North Adams, Thomas Bernard, proposed a series of changes making the commission an advisory board to the mayor. He has said he doesn’t want to judge artistic proposals, but feels the mayor, as the city’s contracting authority, should have any final say on contracts.

Dixon disagrees. “We’re a group of seven people that have specific areas of expertise in this realm, and we’re charged with making some decisions about this thing that we have expertise on,” she told the Berkshire Eagle. “The mayor has changed it, it feels like, to centralize power to his own office.”

Hovering in the background of the dispute is a real-life public art controversy. Last year, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art painted over columns underneath a Route 2 overpass in North Adams. The museum had a sound installation underneath the overpass, and the design called for all the columns to be painted gray. But the museum’s paint job covered over artwork painted by Greylock Elementary School students in 2012 and 2013.

Both the students and the museum say they had city approval for their arts projects on the underpass, but the approvals predated the creation of the arts commission. Dixon said the museum should have sought prior approval of the commission before removing a public art display. She brought up the issue at Tuesday’s City Council hearing, and started to criticize Bernard, but was “shut down.”

Since the mayor’s arts commission proposal first surfaced, the City Council has struggled with what to do. Councilors have tried to find a middle path, giving the mayor final sign-off on the contracts while attempting to give the commission control over the artist and the art works selected. Despite a series of meetings on the issue, a solution hasn’t emerged.

“I wish I didn’t feel the need to step aside,” Dixon wrote in her resignation letter. “I believe in public art, especially in this city. I believe in its power to inspire, motivate, communicate, and beautify. But I can’t spend another hour, much less another month, fighting against the politicians and political structures that should be supporting us.”